[-empyre-] Re:the sublime
Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime
In the Critique of Judgement Kant defines the sublime as "that, the mere
ability to think which shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every
standard of sense." (1) Such striving for absolute comprehension beyond what the imagination is
capable of representing in a simple perception or image may be occasioned
by the "rawness" of scenes like the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the magnitude
or immensity of which alludes to the Idea of absolute greatness. (2) Imagination's failure to contain this Idea understandably results in
pain. (3) But pain is not the end-point; characteristic of sublime feeling is a
"movement" of pain to pleasure: "the feeling of a momentary checking of
the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them." (4) In other words one is awestruck: nature appears as a "mere nothing in
comparison with the Ideas of Reason." (5) From this we realize our superiority to nature "within and without us"
and our supersensible destination beyond nature. (6)
(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London:
Macmillan, 1914), 110.
(2) "Idea" here is capitalized to distinguish it as transcendental, what
must be the case in order for science to be possible. The Idea of absolute
greatness has only a regulative or heuristic function, meaning that it is
not factually informative but rather guides our investigation of the
facts. Specifically, in the light of transcendental Ideas of absolute
greatness scientists act as if it were possible, though they do not know
this for certain, to unify knowledge in terms of a single principle-"Grand
Unified Theory," if you will. See Frederick Copleston, Vol. 6 of A History
of Philosophy (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1960), 279-307.
(3) This is an example of what Kant calls the "mathematical sublime," in
which absolute greatness takes the form of measure. It may also take the
form of might, which Kant memorably dramatizes as follows: "Bold,
overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the
sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all
their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation;
the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty
river, and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as
insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of
them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we
are in security." (Kant, Judgement, 125). Kant's message here is
reminiscent of Pascal's: "Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature,
but he is a thinking reed ... if the universe were to crush him, man would
still be nobler than his destroyer, because he knows that he dies, and
also the advantage that the universe has over him; but the universe knows
nothing of this." (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. J. Warrington (Dent:
London, 1973), 110.
(4) Kant, Judgement, 102.
(5) Ibid, 118.
(6) Ibid, 129.
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